To-Do Lists

You’ve probably made one at least once in your life. Perhaps you simply wanted to keep track of all your errands for one morning. Perhaps company was coming and a lot needed to be done before your guests arrived. Or perhaps you’re of the more romantic type and were sorting out big goals for your life.

By and large, however, the to-do list separates us into two groups of people: those of us who keep lists and those of you who make fun of those of us who do.

As you can tell, I am a proud member of the former camp. I have a list of books I’ve read, for example, and another list of books I’d like to read should I ever be blessed with that most elusive of mysteries commonly referred to as ‘spare time.’ I also have a running weekly list of assignments and their due dates for all of my law school classes.

I know what you’re thinking: this one will definitely not be winning the award for the most interesting person of 2009.

But that’s because you belong to Group Number Two—one of those who thinks that lists are for people without memories, or with obsessive compulsive disorder… or both.

You may be right. But I know a lot of people who think otherwise.

In fact, I have a list of them.

Seriously, though, this topic is especially pertinent at this time of year because even the non-list-makers among us frequently indulge in a special list for the new year: resolutions.

Interestingly, though, this is one thing that has never quite made my list. (Then again, I’m also not much of one to give things up for Lent.) And to tell you the truth, I’m not exactly sure why.

Maybe it’s because there’s something so fatally disappointing about this particular list. I mean, I don’t know if anyone has ever conducted a study on the relative success of the new year’s resolution, but I’m guessing that the odds are not in its favor. After all, today is only January 2nd, and how many of yours have you already broken?

But this view is perhaps too cynical. I certainly don’t think that every resolution is doomed to failure. I’ve even made some of my own from time to time—though admittedly not at the beginning of the year. This past August 16th, for example, I resolved never to eat fast food again, and I haven’t touched the stuff since.

More likely, the reason why I dislike the notion of new year’s resolutions is that I’m wary of the part of our consciousness from which such resolutions arise.

As human beings, there is a part of us—whether it be in the heart or in the head, I couldn’t say—that fears the ticking of a clock.

It could be because of something as simple as an aversion to deadlines, or because of something as deeply rooted as an awareness of our own mortality. Whatever it is, though, there is something about the marked passage of time that takes us in its grip and won’t let us go until we’ve done something about it…

… or feel like we have.

And it seems to me that new year’s resolutions are one way of avoiding this fear—one tool that allows us to feel that we control the passage of time. By making one or more resolutions for the upcoming year, we say, “Look, year, I’ve got plans for you! The time you hold will be used to accomplish my tasks… and I am resolved that you shall not slip through my fingers until I’m done with you.”

Yet time marches on, and life moves forward as we busy ourselves making other plans.

The truth is that anything worth doing is worth doing now, today—whether today happens to be January 1, August 16, or any day before or after.

And if there’s something that needs to be accomplished over a longer period of time, why allow our resolve to last only as long as the year? Start today, continue tomorrow, and allow time to take care of the rest.

Because, in the end, like it or not, with lists or without, that’s exactly what time is best at doing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “To-Do Lists

  1. Medievalist

    From one list taker to another: bravo! I used to keep my resolutions, and at the end of every year, review all my previous ones. The same things kept appearing, of course, like the “lose 5 pounds” that I’m sure appears on everyone’s list. But I also realized that I actually reached the really important goals, the ones that made for significant changes in my life, perhaps not the first year–but eventually. (One particularly bad year I resolved simply to put one foot in front of the other.) Without these, it’s like getting in my car and trying to drive to California without a map or GPS. Is this all about trying to take charge of my own mortality? Absolutely, if we rethink mortality as you have–the time we have here, not the end.

  2. I was going to leave a name but then I realized you're getting my email anyway

    I generally like New Year’s resolutions, though I’ve never really kept track of them for longer than a few weeks (whoever the person above me is, it’s amazing that you actually still have them at the end of the year to review).

    There’re only two things I don’t like about New Year’s resolutions: one is that people make this huge deal out of them and try to make a really long list with the goals they want to have accomplished by the end of the year, which ain’t all gonna happen next week, or the next, or the next, etc., and then think it’ll never happen and give up; when really they could set a smaller goal while keeping the bigger one in mind. (That’s what I’ve done this year.)

    The second thing is that people seem to think that New Year’s is the best time to make resolutions and then, unlike you, don’t make any the rest of the year. Resolutions at the beginning of the year are great, but resolutions later on are just as good.

    Also, I really like that you separate your paragraphs frequently. I’ve followed your lead here 🙂

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